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The inevitable finally occurred last week: On August 24, an American Muslim taxi driver was violently attacked and nearly killed by a fellow New Yorker who was influenced by the hateful rhetoric and vicious propaganda that has flourished recently. Ahmed Sharif, who was born in Bangladesh and has lived in the United States for twenty-five years, picked up 21-year-old Michael Enright, who, after a few innocuous comments, established that his driver was Muslim and began taunting his religion.
“As the cab inched up Third Avenue and reached 39th Street [in Manhattan], Mr. Sharif said in a phone interview, Mr. Enright suddenly began cursing at him and shouting ‘This is the checkpoint’ and ‘I have to bring you down’,” the New York Times reported. “‘He was talking like he was a soldier,’ Mr. Sharif said. He withdrew a Leatherman knife, Mr. Sharif said, and, reaching through the opening in the plastic divider, slashed Mr. Sharif’s throat. When Mr. Sharif turned, he said, Mr. Enright stabbed him in his face, on his arm and on his thumbs. Mr. Sharif said he told him: ‘I beg of you, don’t kill me. I worked so hard, I have a family’.”
Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Fox News bear considerable responsibility for this attack and for any other hate crimes committed against Muslims in the immediate future. If you continuously shout that “Islam equals Nazism” and “all Muslims are responsible for 9/11,” which has been the explicit message of the leaders of the campaign against the Park51 community center, someone like Mr. Enright will eventually translate your rhetoric into action.
While Gingrich and Fox lead the charge, lesser-known local politicians are conveying the anti-Islam message to their communities. Allen West, who is running for Congress in Broward County, Florida, “told a group of supporters that ‘Islam is not a religion’ but rather ‘a vicious enemy’ that was “infiltrating” the United States.” Elsewhere in Florida—not far from the site of a planned Quran-burning on September 11—Congressional candidate Ron McNeil “told a group of high school and middle school students last week that Islam’s plan ‘is to destroy our way of life’.”
The recent controversy over the Manhattan community center has brought to the surface and intensified our society’s deep-seated bigotry toward Muslims. A few myths and facts about the Park51 Community Center, also known as the Cordoba House or, inaccurately, as the “ground zero mosque”:
Myths 1 and 2 are captured in the label “ground zero mosque.” The proposed building is not a mosque. “The Community Center will feature recreational programs and services for all community members regardless of religious affiliation or faith,” explained the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in an August 23 statement. It will be, “in fact, an interfaith Center.” And it is located two long city blocks (roughly the length of two football fields) from the former WTC, and is not even visible from the site of the 9/11 attacks. As Clyde Haberman wrote in the New York Times this week, only exaggerating slightly for comic effect, “Two blocks is equivalent to several miles in other cities or in the suburbs. Your dry cleaner moves two blocks, and it’s so long, pal. He’ll never see you again. He might as well have relocated to Yonkers.”
The presence, another block away, of the “New York Dolls Gentleman’s Club”—which I suppose should be called “The Ground Zero Strip Club,” if we’re going to persist in calling Park51 the “ground zero mosque”—hardly upholds the sacredness of the site, but has provoked no hysteria.
These facts have been widely reported over the last week or so, yet this controversy is still described as the “ground zero mosque” issue in the news media, even by supporters of Park51’s constitutional rights.
Myth #3: “Muslims have not condemned the attacks”: This is quite false. “American Muslims utterly condemn” the “vicious and cowardly acts,” declared the Islamic Society of North America a few hours after the attacks. “No political cause could ever be justified by such immoral acts.” This was among the first of a long list of condemnations issued by Muslim organizations and individuals. The Council on American Islamic Relations has compiled a 68-page collection of Muslim repudiations of terrorism.
Myth #4: “Cordoba House,” which Park51 was officially called until very recently, invokes the memory of “Muslim conquerors, who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque,” announced Newt Gingrich. Dr. Gingrich has a doctorate in History, and should know better. Córdoba is seen by most knowledgeable people as a symbol not of Muslim conquest and triumphalism, but of the relative tolerance, inter-religious harmony, and profound cultural achievements of Islamic Spain. As Carl Pyrdum wrote in an astute commentary for the History News Network, the Córdoba mosque (or Mezquita), a marvelous and inspiring work of architecture, “far from ‘symboliz[ing] their victory’ … was held up by Muslim historians a symbol of peaceful coexistence with the Christians.” It was Christian conquerors in the 13th century, not the earlier Umayyad dynasty, who appropriated the building “in an aggressive erasure of history and statement of faith,” as Edward Said noted.
Myth #5: The big, unstated myth that underlies the hysteria: “Muslims are collectively guilty for 9/11, and Islam is a violent, un-American religion.” Some commentators, such as Mark Williams, until recently a prominent Tea Party leader, are explicit in their bigotry (Williams stated that the Cordoba House would be a “temple to terrorists” where Muslims would “worship their monkey god”). Others are more subtle, but there is no escaping the implication, in all this hysteria over Park51, that all Muslims are responsible for 9/11. Why else would an Islamic center (in reality, a multi-faith center run by Muslims) provoke such a furor? The fact is that twenty Islamist zealots, with the assistance of a few others, were responsible for September 11. The rest of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, and the Islamic faith itself, had nothing to do with it.
Citizens of the United States have congratulated themselves far too much for transcending racism. The election of President Obama, for example, was seized upon by many over-optimistic (or, in some cases, cynical and calculating) people as proof that we now live in a “post-racial” society. Thanks to the courageous efforts of civil-rights campaigners and activists of previous generations, this society did indeed become a more civilized place over the last fifty years. But the cancer of racism and ethnic bigotry—this country’s original sin—never vanished, and over the last two years we have slid dangerously backward. Bigotry against Muslims, and also against African Americans and Latinos, can now be expressed more openly and loudly than in many years.
Professor Gingrich, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly—who are only the most persistent within the deafening chorus of anti-Muslim hate speech—owe an answer to Talat Hamdani, whose son was one of several dozen Muslims killed in 9/11. “Why are we paying the price? Why are we being ostracized?” asked Hamdani of an Associated Press reporter. “America was founded on the grounds of religious freedom,” and opposition to the cultural center “is un-American. It’s unethical. And it is wrong.”
JOHN COX is an assistant professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he teaches courses in European history, the Holocaust, and Islamic civilizations. Dr. Cox is the author of Circles of Resistance, a book on German-Jewish anti-Nazi activism recently published by Peter Lang.